In the confrontation between Israel and Midian, the Torah reveals the great void of virtue that separated the two nations. While Israel had fallen to great depths in the challenge of the Peor, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, points out that it had risen again to great heights in the ensuing battle against a nation steeped in immorality.
“And Moshe said to them: have you allowed all the females to live?…Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, by the word of Bileam, to be disloyal to Hashem in the matter of Peor. And now kill every male among the little ones” (31:14-17).
Twelve thousand men participated in the expedition (31:5) against Midian, and not a man was missing when they returned. But a still greater wonder was that no man committed any misdeed (Shabbos 64a) with the captive women.
If among 12,000 men there had not been one instance of such behavior in a time of war, the nation demonstrated thereby its supreme superiority over all the peoples of the world. Certainly, the destruction of the 24,000 (25:9) had exerted an effect; yet the fact remains that this expedition now gained for Israel a great perfection.
This explains why Hashem had sent them against Midian instead of sparing them the effort by His own action to punish the Midianites. The females of Midian had exerted themselves previously to ensnare the Sons of Israel, and it is certain that now when the Midianites were attacked, their women had done their utmost to seduce the Israelites. But not even a single son of Israel yielded. This was indeed an atonement for the sin of Peor and the daughters of Midian.
Opponents of Israel point accusingly to this extremely harsh incident in which all male children and even babies were slain. But they must note that the sons of Israel had no intention of doing this, as is openly stated (31:9). The sole reason the children were killed was because of Hashem’s command (31:2) by the word of Moshe.
It is evident from the Scriptures that the sons of Israel were reluctant to destroy the conquered nations. Hashem found it necessary to admonish them again and again to have no compassion upon the peoples of Canaan (Shemos 23:32-33, 34:12; Bamidbar 33:55; and elsewhere), and the Scriptures blame the Israelites for their tolerance of the nations among them (Shoftim 1:27, 29, 30, 31 ,33, 2:2-3, and elsewhere).
But Hashem judges nations collectively and they are rewarded or punished together, with their posterity included in the national reward or punishment. Just as a murderer is put to death and as result his potential unborn children are also destroyed, so too are entire groups of mankind sentenced together. (In this instance, only part of Midian was sentenced for destruction. A remnant remained and became a full-fledged nation again.)
We are surprised to learn that Bilam laid this plot against Israel after he had spoken such noble words in their praise. There is no question he was certain his praises of Israel were true, for he was willing to forfeit the great reward Balak had offered him to curse Israel. But here we see again the principle enunciated above (16:1) – that even one who has attained excellence in awareness of Hashem must also contend with the even more difficult task of conquering envy and similar flaws of character.
It was because Bilam knew the greatness of the Israelites that he came to be inordinately jealous of them. Inflamed by this jealously, he sought to induce Israel to sin so that they should fall from their greatness and be rejected by Hashem. But this fiery jealousy actually enhances the value of his unsurpassed praise of Israel.
This Tisha B’Av, be inspired by the thought-provoking words of Rabbi Avigdor Miller. Access free streaming lectures from your computer or smartphone at www.simchashachaim.com/tisha-bav.html or bit.ly/rabbimiller9av.